With the 2018-19 NBA regular season now at a close, one of the most intriguing first-round matchups of the 2019 NBA Playoffs is that of the #2 seed Denver Nuggets (54-28) taking on the #7 seed San Antonio Spurs. Both the Nuggets (12-8) and the Spurs (15-5) have been in winning form over the last twenty games of the season, with the Spurs securing a nine-game win streak during that time period, being seeing their squad dismantled by the Nuggets in Denver in a 113-85 rout. With x-factors and all-star caliber players for both squads, a team with sustained playoff experience and one a newcomer, the Spurs and Nuggets offer an intriguing pairing with a lot to dig into.
Key Matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
All-Star big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Nikola Jokic are sure to feature prominently in this series, with whoever gains the edge potentially pulling wins for their teams. Jokic has produced incredible stats throughout 2018-19, averaging 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, appearing in all but two contests for the Nuggets this season, earning himself the reputation of the premier distributor of the ball amongst NBA centers. Similar to Aldridge, who has averaged 21.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season in 81 appearances, Jokic poses a threat to space the floor with his adept shooting touch.
Neither player is particularly known for their defensive prowess, yet given their skill sets and overall lackluster athleticism, the two may find themselves pitted against each other for the majority of the series, with Spurs center Jakob Poeltl and Nuggets forward Paul Millsap figuring into the defensive schemes against the two, but overall those defensive assignments shouldn’t blow anyone away. Look for Jokic and Aldridge to duel it out in this stretch of games, with the most recent edge going to Jokic in the April 3rd matchup between the two teams, posting a 20 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist outing to counter Aldridge’s 16 point, 6 rebound performance.
Nuggets X-Factor: Jamal Murray
One of the most confident, sure-of-his-shot players in the league is third-year guard Jamal Murray, averaging a career-high mark of 18.2 points, posting seven games of thirty points or higher, and exceeding forty points in two contests. The former Kentucky guard has never shied away from the moment, and now on the biggest stage of his career, Murray will look to exhibit the hot hand that’s helped him craft his reputation as one of the NBA’s best young scorers in front of his largest audience to date. An 85% free throw shooter and shooting nearly 37% from three, Murray can be deadly from the floor, but it’s yet to be determined if the moment will elevate the 22-year-old’s game or if he’ll crack under the bright lights of the playoffs, especially against such an experienced squad as the Spurs.
If San Antonio is forced to give more pressure to Murray, who when on target can require two defenders, the Nuggets could very well feast with open looks for Jokic, former all-star Paul Millsap or guard threats such as Gary Harris and Will Barton. If the Denver offense establishes a rhythm, the one-two punch of Jokic and Murray may be too much for the Spurs to handle.
Spurs X-Factor: DeMar DeRozan
While it may not be a groundbreaking assertion to suggest that San Antonio’s co-scoring leader and four-time all-star DeMar DeRozan can have a remarkable influence on a basketball game, DeRozan has notably struggled in the postseason. In the 2017-18 playoffs, DeRozan endured a 0-13 drought on three-point attempts before abandoning the three-ball completely for the last two games of Cleveland’s sweep of the Toronto Raptors. DeRozan was subsequently held to 8 points in nearly 28 minutes in Game 3 of that series, an incredibly underwhelming total for a primary scorer of DeRozan’s caliber, and another mark against his playoff reputation. DeRozan also notably struggled in the prior postseason as well, having tallied a 2-11 shooting performance for 5 points in Game 2 against the Cavs, another sweep in favor of Cleveland. Now, having arrived in San Antonio as the key return in the Kawhi Leonard trade, DeRozan has flourished not only as a scorer with 21.2 points per game, but a career-high assist total of 6.2 assists per game.
DeRozan achieved a mark of 10 assists or more in a game on five different occasions this season, a total he had only previously achieved three times in his nine seasons with the Toronto Raptors. Still not the best three-point shooter, DeRozan possesses the athleticism and mid-range shooting ability to give Denver’s defense fits, and his slashing prowess creates opportunities his myriad offensive options from sharpshooters Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans to veteran combo threat Rudy Gay. If DeRozan is on target, not taking low percentage threes and facilitating for his guys at a high rate, the finesse of the Spurs machine very well may wear down the unproven Denver Nuggets.
While the Nuggets and Spurs match-up extremely well on paper, the Spurs bring to the table two elements which the Nuggets cannot yet claim: Significant playoff experience and one of the greatest minds the game has ever known in Head Coach Gregg Popovich. The Nuggets are inexperienced and essentially a mystery at this level of play, and having split the season 2-2 between them, I give the edge to the known, time-proven quantities that the Spurs have to offer, but I don’t expect the Nuggets to go down easily. Expect this first-round matchup in the 2019 NBA Playoffs to be a dog fight.
Prediction: 4-3 Spurs
2019 NBA Playoffs Series Television Schedule
-Game 1: 4/13 San Antonio @ Denver. 10:30 PM ET, ESPN.
-Game 2: 4/16 San Antonio @ Denver. 9:00 PM ET, NBA TV.
-Game 3: 4/18 Denver @ San Antonio. 9:00 PM ET, NBA TV.
-Game 4: 4/20 Denver @ San Antonio. 5:30 PM ET, TNT & ESPN Radio.
-Game 5: (if necessary): 4/23 San Antonio @ Denver, TBD.
-Game 6: (if necessary): 4/25 Denver @ San Antonio, TBD.
-Game 7: (if necessary): 4/27 San Antonio @ Denver, Time TBD, TNT.